With their industry being closely inspected by multiple regulators, three of the biggest online lending companies have formed a new association they hope will ensure price and fee transparency for their loans.

OnDeck, Kabbage, and CAN Capital have created a group called the Innovative Lending Platform Association, aimed at creating clarity about their respective lending practices through education, advocacy, and a set of best practices, according to a press release.

The three lenders, which Dow Jones Business News reports together made $4 billion in loans in 2015, have not joined other industry groups formed by competitors over the past year.

"We formed the Innovative Lending Platform Association to tackle the key issue of pricing transparency because it hasn't been comprehensively addressed by other trade groups," Kathryn Petralia, co-founder of Kabbage, said in an email.

Those groups, such as the Responsible Business Lending Coalition and the Marketplace Lending Association, do have similar goals to the ILPA, however. The former, created in 2015, has nine founding members including  Lending Club, Funding Circle, and Fundera. It has created a borrower's bill of rights, which restrains lenders from pressuring prospective small-business clients to borrow and from signing them up for loans that will be difficult for them to repay. More than two dozen alternative finance companies have signed the pledge. 

Similarly, the MLA, formed in April, aims to promote better policies around alternative lending, including transparency, corporate governance, and sound risk practices. The association is open to any marketplace lender that meets a set of standards, which generally means having been in existence for at least one year, making at least $1 million in revenue, and possessing the ability to match at least 75 percent of loan dollar values with commitments from investors prior to making the loans. The group's current membership comprises Lending Club, Funding Circle, and Prosper.

OnDeck, Kabbage, and CAN Capital are not actually marketplace lenders. They provide financing directly and require weekly or daily repayment. (By contrast, marketplace lenders, sometimes known as peer-to-peer lenders, let individuals and institutions bid to provide financing to business owners.)

For its part, the ILPA has created an initiative it calls SMART Box (SMART stands for straightforward metrics around rate and total cost). The association's members promise to present small businesses with tools to make pricing more understandable, including total dollar cost, annual percentage rates, and price comparisons for different kinds of loans.

The launch of the latest group comes at a time when the online lending industry is under increased scrutiny. Last month, U.S. senators Jeff Merkley (D., Oregon), Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), and Jeanne Shaheen (D., New Hampshire) sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, asking it to look more closely at peer-to-peer lenders, as well as other alternative lenders.

Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White has also said her agency, as well other federal regulators and watchdog agencies, would be examining the alternative lending industry more closely in the coming months.

On the state level, California's Department of Business Oversight late last year launched an investigation into the lending practices of 14 online lenders, including CAN, Kabbage, and OnDeck. The lending volume of 13 of these lenders increased 936 percent to $2.3 billion between 2010 and 2014, the DBO says.

A recent report from Balboa Capital suggests there are now as many as 1,300 alternative lenders in the U.S., with their number increasing about 100 percent in 2015 alone.

Representatives from OnDeck and CAN Capital were unable to comment by deadline.

Published on: May 5, 2016